The question “what is a psychopath?” has so many answers that it remains undefined.
The terms psychopath, sociopath and malignant narcissist are used interchangeably in today’s popular culture. Even among professionals in the field of psychology, there is no one term that has been standardized and used by everyone to describe pathological narcissism. I’ve chosen to use the word psychopath because it is the term used by the preeminent researcher in the field, Dr. Robert Hare.
Dr. Hare has attempted to clarify the definition by creating a psychopathy checklist called the Psychopathy Check List -Revised (PCL-R). The PCL-R is a clinical rating scale (rated by a psychologist or other person trained in the test) of 20 items. Each of the items in the PCL-R is scored on a three-point scale (0, 1, 2). The highest score achievable is 40 and denotes a prototypical psychopath. A score of 30 or above qualifies a person for a diagnosis of psychopathy. So in this sense, the diagnosis of psychopathy is on a continuum, some people are more psychopathic than others.
What is a Psychopath? The twenty traits assessed by the PCL-R score :
- glib and superficial charm
- grandiose sense of self-worth
- pathological lying
- cunning and manipulative
- lack of remorse or guilt
- shallow affect — emotional reactions are short-lived.
- callousness and lack of empathy
- failure to accept responsibility
- need for stimulation, prone to boredom
- parasitic lifestyle
- poor behavioral controls
- lack of long-term, realistic goals
- juvenile delinquency
- early behavior problems
- revocation of conditional release
- sexual promiscuity
- many short-term marital relationships
- criminal versatility
- Acquired behavioral sociopathy/sociological conditioning (Item 21 is a newly identified trait i.e. a person relying on sociological strategies and tricks to deceive)
While this list provides a foundation for defining a psychopath, it is a clinical tool, meant to be used in a clinical setting. It is difficult to use the list to assess a psychopath one meets “in the wild” because a psychopath always wears a mask. Dr. Hervey Cleckley, one of the earliest researchers in psychopathy, called it “The Mask of Sanity” in his book by that same title. A psychopath can wear a number of masks, portraying different personalities as the situation requires. This is because he mirrors the people around him, especially the ones he intends to victimize.
It is the use of masks and deception in their predation that makes it difficult to define a psychopath. These camouflage tactics, by their definition, are almost invisible to an unsuspecting victim so they cannot easily be used to recognize the psychopath until it’s too late.
Furthermore, the psychopath, being a pathological liar, is not prone to admit the real motivations for his behavior even if he were actually aware of them. Instead a psychopath makes excuses, justifies, rationalizes and blames his victim for creating the situation which forced him to aggress against the victim.
Many psychopathic behaviors occur in other personality disorders, making it even more difficult to determine whether the person is a psychopath, a sociopath, a borderline, a narcissist, an anti-social, some other disorder or combination of disorders described in the DSM-5. Consequently, there has been much disagreement about what makes up a psychopath.
What is a Psychopath? Your Emotions Inform You.
The psychopath’s addiction is to power. To achieve power, he preys on other human beings by manipulating their emotions. So, rather than looking outside of ourselves for a warning sign, it may behoove us to check inside, with our emotions. In any interaction, we can ask ourselves whether our emotions are being manipulated. Creating drama through the use of charm, pity and rage are common tactics for emotional manipulation. These are warning signs that the person may be an emotional vampire, but the final nail in the coffin is when you sense that you’ve been in the presence of evil. Eric Fromm, in The Heart of Man, called malignant narcissism “the quintessence of evil” (Fromm, 18).
What is a Psychopath? A 180° Mask That Hides Shame and Envy.
In her book, Why is it Always About You? The Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism, Sandy Hotchkiss explains that narcissism is rooted in envy and in shame. This shame is so unbearable that it is bypassed and results in behavior that appears shameless. Since the psychopath’s behavior is motivated by unconscious emotions of envy and shame, then perhaps the best definition of a psychopath can be found in Rene Girard’s principles of mimetic desire and the scapegoat mechanism.
Rene Girard in A Theatre of Envy, states,
“Envy involuntarily testifies to the lack of being that puts the envious to shame” (Girard, 4).
In one short sentence, Girard has described the essence of the psychopath: An envious, shameful lack-of-being. This is why he is a predator of human beings.